We were always ethical folk

October 18, 1996

Robert Eaglestone examines the resurgence of a topic long neglected by many in the world of theory.

Ethics" argued Steven Connor in the TLS, "seems to have replaced 'textuality' as the most charged term in the vocabulary of contemporary literary and cultural theory". The word "ethics" is in the title of several new critical books. There was an international conference on "Ethics and Literature" this summer at Aberystwyth. What has brought about this apparently new concern?

In literary studies specifically, and in the humanities in general, there seem to be two contrasting reasons. First, the interest in ethics can be seen in the backlash against theory. In a back-to-basics text, Return to Essentials, the late Geoffrey Elton defended history from the new theoretical ideas: theorists are "devilish tempters who claim to offer higher forms of thought and deeper truths and insights - the intellectual equivalent of crack ... cancerous radiation comes from the head of Derrida and Foucault".

The backlash is strongest in literary studies, the discipline most influenced by theory. One finds upstanding English criticism invaded by a gang of "ermine-clad feminists, Marxist uxoricides, and polymorphous perverse professors" from Paris. In The THES last July, an anonymous article suggested that theorists "fear democratic debate" and preach a "puritanical moralism".

These polemics almost without exception insist that theory lacks an ethics and that theory strips literature of ethical importance.

However, the most common thread to theory, at the risk of ascribing it a unity it may not have, is that it is inspired by work done in a post-structuralist philosophical tradition - which offers both a retort to the backlash and the second, more significant reason for the renewed interest in ethics. Ethics has always been a central concern of post-structuralist thought. However, it is only in the past few years that post-structuralists have become more vocal about their ethical commitments.

One manifestation of this is the growing interest in the work of the late French Jewish philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas, whose work is exclusively concerned with the ethical. For theorists, this re-evaluation of Levinas goes hand in hand with the realisation that the reception of post-structuralism has perhaps failed to do its ethical commitments justice.

Indeed, one task for the post-structuralist critical movement will be to lay out clearly the specific relationship between the ethical conceptions of this influential continental philosophical tradition, illustrated most lucidly in the work of Emmanuel Levinas, and literature as it is read, taught and studied.

As the ethical arguments which underlie post-structuralism are more lucidly laid out, it is clear that ethics have never been away from criticism. The ethical position of older pre-theory "Englit" criticism had been made meaningless by repetition, platitudinous by vague generalities about goodness, or, worse, had become hypocritical in its lack of self-reflection. Matthew Arnold, a touchstone for the anti-theory camp, argued that the "English critic of literature I must dwell much on foreign thought". It is precisely that "foreign thought", in the form of post-structuralism, that has re-enervated the ethical concerns of literary studies. In this light, the current active concern shown for ethics represents not the result of a successful backlash against theory but rather the fruition of the ethical post-structuralist project.

Robert Eaglestone is a part-time lecturer in both the English and philosophy departments, University of Wales, Lampeter.

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